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Iraq: U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division Crosses Border, Begins Northward Advance

The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division is advancing into Iraq today, after cutting its way through the United Nations demilitarized zone that separates the country from Kuwait. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz entered Iraq early today with the mechanized infantry division and reports on the early stages of the invasion.

Southern Iraq, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military forces advancing into Iraq today from Kuwait are now two days ahead of plans for a ground assault on Baghdad. The U.S. Army pushed its schedule for a ground war up by 48 hours after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein yesterday ordered six Scud missiles to be launched into Kuwait.

According to U.S. military intelligence, two of the Scud missiles were intercepted by Patriot missile defense systems, while the other four reportedly fell harmlessly into the desert.

At about the same time, intelligence officials were receiving reports that Iraqis were torching some of the oil wells in the Rumalia oil field. Senior military officials told RFE/RL that both the Scud firings and the reported Rumalia torchings led them to push up their plans for a ground war.

Within an hour of the Scud attacks, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division was on the move, into the United Nations' demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has separated Kuwait from Iraq since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

U.S. engineers with bulldozers and other machinery immediately set to work knocking holes in the 217-kilometer-long earth embankments on the Kuwaiti side of the border and filling in an antitank trench. At the same time, columns of U.S. Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers moved in place for their breakthrough.

It took about five hours for the engineers to complete their work in making some 40 breaches in the berm and cutting through the UN's electrified barbed-wire fence.

Then, 109-millimeter Howitzers, mounted on Paladin-armored vehicles, let loose a rolling barrage of artillery shells that lasted for several minutes -- targeting Iraqi observation posts in the first ground war fire involving the 3rd Infantry Division.

American scouts with laser-guided thermal night vision scopes pushed past the UN's deserted buildings in the DMZ and spotted what they thought were two Iraqi tanks and two Soviet-built "BMP" armored personnel carriers. U.S. tanks from the division's first brigade combat team, known as "raiders," then destroyed the targets as well as three Iraqi observation posts. By radio, they transmitted the results of their attack back to a central command unit in the battlefield.

First voice: "Roger. Update from [the field headquarters' unit]. It was a raider that cleared [observation posts numbers] 12, 13, and 15. Engaged and destroyed two BMPs, one enemy tank and is currently engaging one tank."

Second voice: "Roger that."

The first brigade combat team and an artillery attachment then pushed across the Iraqi border and drove several kilometers forward to cover teams of engineers that cleared mines and other obstructions on the road inside Iraq.

At about 0315 Prague time, the order was passed down along the line of vehicles for the main body of the 3rd Infantry Division to pour through 20 newly created corridors in the DMZ barrier.

First voice: "Everybody stop what you're doing. Get [back] in your vehicles and push out."

Second voice: "Stop what you're doing. Get into your vehicles and get ready to push out.

First voice: "We're pushing out right where you're at."

On the Iraqi side of the DMZ, a steel-reinforced concrete barrier painted with the blue-and-white United Nations colors was shoved aside by the U.S. Army's bulldozers and replaced by a wooden sign that read: "Welcome to Iraq -- Charlie Company of the U.S. Army's 11th Engineer Battalion."

As thousands of U.S. soldiers and vehicles entered Iraq in the predawn hours and began their rapid advance to the north, it soon became apparent that the tanks and armored personnel carriers targeted earlier in the night were nothing more than decoys fabricated from wood and intended to alert Hussein to any breakthrough along the border.

There was no Iraqi military opposition to the division's advance in the morning hours. But in the afternoon, U.S. reconnaissance scouts from the 3rd Infantry Division engaged in a firefight with about 20 Iraqi soldiers traveling in a convoy. Ten Iraqi casualties were reported, and an additional 10 Iraqi soldiers were taken prisoner by U.S. troops. There were no immediate reports of U.S. soldiers being injured.